Sunday, September 13, 2015

Who by earthquake and who by drowning?

Worms Machzor (1272)

In this time of wandering of nations, apparently partly climate-induced, lawyers are wrestling with the question of the legal status of climate refugees. On the other hand, a traditional view, still held by many, sees a seamless continuity between law and environment.

Over the next couple of days Jews will celebrate Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, also the Jewish Day of Judgment. One of the highlights of the synagogue service for Ashkenazi Jews is the prayer known as Unetaneh Tokef ("Let us relate the power of the day's holiness"), a sort of Jewish Dies Irae, which contains these lines (translation Helen Plotkin):
On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many will pass and how many will be created?
Who will live and who will die?
Who in their time, and who not their time?
Who by fire and who by water?
Who by sword and who by beast?
Who by hunger and who by thirst?
Who by earthquake and who by drowning?
Who by strangling and who by stoning?
Who will rest and who will wander?
Who will be safe and who will be torn?
Who will be calm and who will be tormented?
Who will become poor and who will get rich?
Who will be made humble and who will be raised up?

While our modern sensibilities make the causal connection between morality and environmental catastrophe difficult to accept at face value, there is an ethical attraction in the older view's refusal to absolve humans for their responsibility for the suffering caused by "natural" disasters; these become disasters only with the addition of human agency.

As the traditional Jewish New Year's blessing goes, may we all--the wandering and the tempest-tost, as well as those fortunate to have to face only the ethical dilemmas created by the suffering around us--be inscribed and sealed for a good year.

(For more on immorality and environmental catastrophe see here.)

1 comment:

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